Eating Out: Hambleton Hall: A tail of langoustine

Hambleton, near Oakham, Leicestershire LE15 8TH. Tel: 01572 756 991. Open daily 12-1.30 and 7-9.30. Three-course set dinner, pounds 29.50, thre e- course menu of the month, pounds 35. Average a la carte price per person, pound s 45. Credit cards accepted
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We all have moments which qualify as milestones in life, and eating a bowl of tomato soup which costs pounds 17.50 must be regarded as a major one. Whatever could be done to a tomato soup to make it worth 87p a mouthful? Having each spoonful personally fed by a lithe, expensive young man, perhaps? Infusing it with essence of truffles snuffled by pot- bellied pigs, maybe? Well, for one thing, it was served in the setting of Hambleton Hall - a 15-room Victorian country-house hotel perched on a hill overlooking what was once rolling Leicestershire hunting land but is now known as Rutland Water. "The largest stretch of man-made water in Great Britain," as my companion explained with a zeal which was baffling.

Having glided over the gravel through the rhododendrons, we were ushered past a stand full of complimentary green wellies, and up to our room, which was called "Swallow", making us happily mindful of dinner. There were no tea-making facilities, but tea for two was swiftly brought, (we didn't realise until later that it was going to cost us pounds 7 every time). We admired our room, just a "standard" one, but with a view over the lake, fine cotton sheets, antique furniture, and what I believe is known as a "well-appointed bathroom". The only disadvantage was that there were so many mirrors, it was impossible to avoid viewing yourself from every angle when showering or using the loo - not altogether what you want when you are about to stuff yourself.

Downstairs in the drawing room a welcoming fire was blazing, which was great because, although it was August, the weather had turned nasty - a great disappointment in view of the walled and heated swimming pool outside. It was a fabulous room - gracious, high-ceilinged, full of antiques and comfortable sofas, and a flower arrangement the size of a telephone box. There is probably nothing to be done about the awkward pre-dinner glass-clinking atmosphere in posh hotel drawing-rooms, short of filling them with a lottery winner and 14 friends. Despite the efforts of the owner to make everyone relax, we still found ourselves whispering furtively and, when a quail's egg canape shot itself over my frock, giggling uncontrollably.

The wine list was impressive, though not much to tempt you for under pounds 20. I plumped for Pouilly Fume, not realising it was a 1993 Didier Dagueneau at pounds 7 a glass but, heigh-ho, it was gorgeous. Two set menus at pounds 35 and pounds 29.50 were offered, as well as the a la carte.

The dining-room overlooked the terrace, grounds and lake. Tables were beautifully laid with crisp linen, sparkling glassware, flowers and candles disguised, perversely, as table lamps. It was pleasantly full of residents and non-residents - here, a young, preppy American couple, there, a middle- aged man with two ladies in tight, floral two-pieces. A waiter and waitress presented us simultaneously with cups of vichyssoise. We were uncertain whether to reach for a spoon, but the most endearing waiter you can imagine said softly: "It's all right, you just drink it." This struck us as the perfect way to be for a waiter - seemingly just as baffled by the whole thing as we were, reassuring and totally on our side.

After the excellence of the free vichyssoise, our excitement at the imminent arrival of the pounds 17.50 tomato soup was uncontainable. I have never seen a tomato soup like it. First, there was a little stew of cherry tomatoes sitting on a bed of chilled creme fraiche, then a puree of tomatoes, the whole surrounded by an almost see-through essence of tomatoes. It seemed only one stage short of distilling the tomatoes in a laboratory to their purest chemical components then serving them up with great artistry and some fried basil. It was exquisite, it was dazzling but, funnily enough, I preferred eating my companion's little arrangement of seafood with lime and chives which came with the cheaper set menu: tender morsels of John Dory, turbot and monkfish nestling in a gorgeous vegetable stock-based sauce, garnished with a langoustine tail. "It's all right," said our sweet waiter, confidentially, "you can eat a bit of its tail, but it's just for fancy, really."

I had selected "braised loin of rabbit with a little pie of its leg meat," from the a la carte. Again, this was spectacular. My companion's set-menu breast of chicken with a morel sauce was simple and gorgeous: the chicken succulent, the sauce with perfect temperature, texture and taste. The set-menu dessert of poached peach with an iced soup of raspberries arrived looking fresh, light and mouth-watering, and tasting even better. My a la carte pave of white and dark chocolate looked like a handbag. It was very good indeed, with a moulded chocolate case and handle, but I still found myself wanting the peach. Coffee was taken in the cosy bar painted a rich shade of deep red. Here, a different waiter brought us coffee and petit fours, recommending the mini lemon tart which ejaculated onto my dress. By now, I was so covered in bits of the various courses that there was no need to ask for the menu for reference. "What's that?" my companion said, pointing at a weird-looking fruit. "It's a syphilis," said the waiter, "sorry, Physalis". We decided to leave that particular one well alone, polished off the rest of the fruit and retired, full and contented, to try and avoid the bathroom mirrors.

The bill - with pounds 150 for the room plus pounds 105 for dinner and two glasses of wine - came to pounds 283, the extra pounds 28 being almost entirely made up of cups of tea. But that sort of total is kind of par for the course in a country house hotel. Hambleton Hall is small, quiet, welcoming, with fabulous food. And, unless you're the kind of person who can't stop thinking how many cans of Heinz tomato soup you could buy for pounds 17.50, it's a nice spot for a visit. !

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